The plight and protection of pollinators - Part one

Photo by Vicky Dorvee

Some trees in Niwot sprouted interesting new houses earlier this year.

 

This is the first part of a two-part series covering pollination - what it is and what does that important work. Next week’s article will delve into what can be done to help protect and increase pollinator populations.

There’s some free real estate in Niwot - beautiful little bee and butterfly houses on trees along Hidden Valley Trail, just west of the recycling center on 79th Street in Niwot. While it may look like the trees are on open space, most of the pollinator abodes were anonymously hung on private land and were a surprise even to the owner of the property.

These mysteriously mounted boxes are very pretty and are a good segue to research why pollinators are getting so much deserved attention.

Pollination 101

Simply put, pollination is the transport of pollen from the male part of one flower (the seed producing part of a plant) to the female part of another flower in the same species. The resulting fertilization will produce a vegetable or fruit containing more seeds, continuing the cycle of life.

Performing this task is just a lucky side effect of the pollinator going from one flower to another gathering nectar, while some freeloading pollen gets serendipitously implanted.

Without pollinators, flowering species like those rows of squash and tomatoes, and the orchards of apple and peaches, and pretty much the majority of our food, could not be produced.

Who’s a good little pollinator?

Think bigger than the glamorous honeybee we all love - not just in size, but in scope when identifying pollen carriers. “Tens of thousands of species” was City of Boulder Integrated Pest Management Coordinator Rella Abernathy’s magnanimous guess for just how many types of insects gather and transfer pollen. Varieties of native bees make up a vast number of pollinators, with thousands of species world-wide and several hundred species in Colorado. Add in butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles, moths and even bats to the list. Wind and water are players, but they’re not as precise or reliable.

Why all the worry?

“We have enough data to know that we’re in a serious situation,” Abernathy said.

Citing data gathered by biologists at the United Nations Convention of International Biodiversity, Abernathy said we’re in a crisis and everyone needs to take action – in backyards, on public lands and throughout agricultural systems.

Pollinator habitat loss, Abernathy said, is the result of spreading urbanization, climate change, the use of pesticides and other factors that comprise “the constellation of problems that are creating this storm and need to be dealt with urgently.”

Abernathy focuses on creating policies and supporting programs that increase native pollinator populations and ones that reduce pesticide use. This work will ultimately boost and protect biodiversity leading to well-functioning ecosystems with clean air and water.

Niwotian Deryn Davidson, Boulder County Colorado State University Horticulture Extension agent, also spends a significant amount of time talking about pollinators. She serves on boards and committees, teaches classes, gives lectures, works event booths, and leads volunteers in an effort to build supportive pollinator habitats community-wide, including public gardens and in people’s own yards.

Davidson said it’s tricky to monitor native pollinators, but baseline data is being gathered. Honeybee populations, however, are more easily observed, because they’re managed and many beekeepers are reporting higher than normal losses. She prefers to look at overall historical trends and concluded, “There’s no doubt that current conditions are not ideal for pollinators and this gives us cause for concern.”

Boulder County’s pollinator conservation efforts

Nothing says they’re on task to address these concerns more than the Pollinator Action Team (PAT), which was formed at the urging of Boulder County Commissioners.

Boulder County Parks and Open Space Wildlife Biologist Mac Kobza is the co-lead of PAT, along with Vanessa McCracken, an agricultural specialist. The team consists of weed management, plant ecology, and agriculture expert groups, the CSU extension office, and the city of Longmont’s natural resources department.

The team encourages and preserves native pollinators on a local level, by safeguarding pollinators during the process of crop production, improving healthy pollinator populations, gathering baseline pollinator species data, and utilizing the science-based strategies to protect sustainable agricultural practices.

Projects by PAT revolve around pollinator habitat conservation, improvement, and creation, observation of hive populations, and health, research, information and education. To that end, the team maintains pollinator habitat houses at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, and organizes projects that collect seeds on open spaces such as Peck Seed Garden just north of Ollin Farms,as well as in flood restoration areas. They also convert unused agricultural land into pollinator attracting native plant areas.

With the help of Youth Corps, PAT creates pollinator nesting habitats with downed wood at Walden Ponds, and in partnership with the city of Longmont, they work at Peschel Open Space off County Line road and Highway 119 installing pollinator habitats in the restored flood area.

Kobza said, “Overall, Boulder is doing really good as far as the diversity of native pollinators, especially compared to other counties and states in the west.” He attributes this to proper management and the amount of open space in the county. “We could always do better, but it’s a challenge in a mixed environment of land uses to have the maximum amount of habitat,” Kobza added.

Kobza added, “We need to think beyond the honeybee and think about all of the little native pollinators that call Colorado home. They’re the canaries in the coalmine, showing you if they’re there, then the habitat is there, but if they’re not there, the habitat is not there. It’s good to do whatever we can to preserve their habitat.”

To find out what each of us can do on behalf of pollinators, read the second installment of the story in next week’s issue of the Courier.